All About Reflexology

Words: Dr Rajgopal NIDAMBOOR

Reflexology is as old as the hills. Yet, if ever there’s a paradox by way of the usage of a word, or definition, here it is. Reflexology has got nothing to do with reflexes. Rather, the foundational principle of the complementary healing method is based on an ancient theory that the feet, not to speak of the hands, face, or the ears, ‘reflect’ our body. The therapy has been practiced in China, Japan, Egypt and India, for over 5,000 years. Its theory is nothing new, although its growing popularity — especially in the West — is.

Reflexology has really come a long way since two physicians, Dr Bill Fitzgerald, MD, and Dr Edwin Bowers, MD, published their landmark book on the subject, Zone Therapy, over a hundred years ago. Reflexology, or zone therapy, as it was called earlier, uses pressure and massage techniques on what are ‘deciphered’ as reflex points primarily in the feet, and also the hands, the face, or the ears. Therapists and practitioners suggest that reflexology sessions alleviate ‘blocks’ that cause pain, tension, even disability, and promote our body mechanisms to return to a positive state of optimal health — or, restoration — and, not just recovery from illness.

Reflexology has been clinically found to be effective in a host of ailments — from asthma, arthritis, spinal meningitis, migraine headaches, sinus affections, back pain and menstrual disorders to common eye problems, including glaucoma. What is relatively less known is that reflexology can be extremely useful in anxiety, stress, tension, tiredness and diabetes. This is not all. Like acupuncture, it can be employed as a dependable adjunct in preventative medicine too.

Reflex Points

Reflexology points are found on the soles of the feet, the palm of the hands, face, or the ears. The points, in essence, act as small mirrors that reflect the whole organism. Reflexology uses specific pressure techniques to ‘tap’ certain illness ‘triggers,’ or ‘blockages,’ that affect health. This is often detected through the experience of pain, or by the presence of ‘sugar grain-like areas.’ This is referred to as crystal deposits. They occur in the part of the foot, or hand, which relates to the part of the body that is imbalanced.

Like most systems of alternative medicine, reflexology promotes self-healing of the body from within, sans any invasive form of therapy. It does this through the stimulation of the circulatory and lymphatic systems, and by encouraging the release of toxins [detox] and flushing them out of the body. All that the individual, or patient, needs to do is to sit back and unwind. The therapist, or reflexologist, rotates the patient’s feet, which are allowed to dangle from the edge of a footrest. Next, the therapist kneads, presses and ‘pokes’ the soles, or select reflexology points. Reason: every organ and bone system, according to reflexology, has terminating points in the select ‘zone.’ This can be stimulated to promote health and augment the harmonious functioning of a particular system.

Give & Receive

Reflexology is evidenced to be nothing short of a give-and-receive approach, where energy is transmitted to the patient through the hands of the therapist, for health information to be ‘tapped’ from the patient’s feet. The reflexology foot rub as the reflexology procedure is called is not painful, but it is in no way ‘s[m]oothing,’ either. As the reflexologist uses what is termed as ‘caterpillar movements’ — which alternate with the pressure of the therapist’s fingers, or thumb, as one travels along the foot, or the ‘zone’ selected — they will feel as if there are sugar grains beneath the subject’s skin. The points are, in their totality, called crystallised toxins, as referred to earlier — or, potential ‘trouble spots.’ As the therapist massages them, the toxins get scattered and are, in due course, flushed out of the body.

A smooth surface is supposedly a welcome spot for the reflexologist. But, what if you have corns? Don’t you worry. Corns may, in fact, aid the reflexologist in diagnosing a problem. It may, however, be mentioned that reflexologists, at best, avoid treating patients with foot ulcers, swollen, tender veins in their feet, and pregnant women with a bad obstetric history. There should be no problem whatsoever, with infants and children, so long as gentle pressure is applied. All the same, it is always a good idea to provide the reflexologist with your medical history, including any other condition for which you are undergoing conventional therapy, or taking prescription medications.


It ought to be emphasised that reflexology is no panacea, although new studies confirm its therapeutic promise as a gentle adjuvant to enhance relaxation, reduce pain and ease sleep and psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. Clinicians also report that the most beneficial results have been elicited in the area of cancer palliation. A study at Michigan State University, US, evidences that reflexology — a specialsed foot massage practice used since the age of pharaohs — could help cancer patients manage their symptoms and perform routine daily tasks. This was the first-ever large-scale, randomised study of reflexology as a complement to standard cancer treatment. According to lead author Dr Gwen Wyatt, PhD, “It’s always been assumed that reflexology is a nice comfort measure, but to this point we have really not, in a rigorous way, documented the benefits.” Dr Wyatt adds, “This is the first step towards moving a complementary therapy from fringe treatment to mainstream.”

The study involved 385 women undergoing chemotherapy, or hormonal therapy, for advanced-stage breast cancer that had spread beyond the breast. The women were assigned randomly to three groups. Some received treatment by a professionally certified reflexologist, others got a foot massage meant to act like placebo [dummy treatment], and the rest had only standard medical treatment and no foot manipulation. Dr Wyatt and colleagues surveyed participants about their symptoms at intake and checked in with them after five weeks and eleven weeks. They found that subjects in the reflexology group experienced significantly reduced shortness of breath, a common symptom in breast cancer patients. It was suggested that, as a result of their improved breathing, they also were better able to perform daily tasks, such as climbing a flight of stairs, getting dressed, or going to the grocery store. While summing up, Dr Wyatt said she was surprised to find that reflexology’s effects appeared to be primarily physical, not psychological, as most sceptics contend, or aver.

It may also be highlighted that a review of over 200 research studies and abstracts on reflexology published in peer-reviewed journals and seminars from around the world are available for analyses. While most of the studies have originated in China and South Korea, with pertinent information about the frequency and duration of reflexology usage, what has emerged are primarily four effects that the therapy demonstrates, viz., its impact on specific organs, for example, increased blood flow to the kidneys and the intestines; reduction of symptoms in patients on dialysis; relaxation effect, validated through electroencephalogram [EEG] recordings of alpha and theta waves; decreased blood pressure; ‘compacted’ anxiety, along with better pain control, including chest pain, aside from amelioration of peripheral neuropathy symptoms in diabetes, kidney stones, and osteoarthritis.

That reflexology works best in chronic ailments and relieves stress is well-documented too. As a matter of fact, some physicians in orthodox medicine do not think of reflexology as mumbo-jumbo. They value the benefits of the system and are willing to attribute its success on a broad scientific plank — that the human body often responds to stimuli, be it heat, or chemicals in the form of drugs, or physical stimuli of pressure, which have the wherewithal to propel the body mechanisms to react in a certain way.

Reflexology is safe. There aren’t any side-effects, aside from relatively mild, temporary phases of tingling, pinpricks, or a burning sensation in the corresponding body part, following a sitting. One common ‘side-effect’ is thirst and an urge to urinate, or pass stools. There may, at times, be a general, but transitory, feeling of lethargy following a session.

To treat a health condition effectively, or as a rule of the thumb, most reflexologists advice anything between four and six sessions, or more, with each session lasting 40-50 minutes. It may also be mentioned that some reflexologists use acupuncture meridians to elicit a greater insight into the patient’s health, while others may use yoga and colour therapy. Proponents of the latter contend that the object of their fascinating incursion is the harmonious pivot of great beauty and power — more so, because the healing colours of the universe flow through the sensitised body and hands of the therapist and are projected on to the reflex zones of the patient’s feet, or hands.

The inference is obvious. Our feet, hands, face, or the ears, as reflexologists contend, are the microcosm of our whole body, the common factor of unity, and the sum total of everything — including the soul. They hold the mirror to our health — and, optimal wellness.

Dr RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR, PhD, is a wellness physician-writer-editor, independent researcher, critic, columnist, author and publisher. His published work includes hundreds of newspaper, magazine, web articles, essays, meditations, columns, and critiques on a host of subjects, eight books on natural health, two coffee table tomes and an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy. He is Chief Wellness Officer, Docco360 — a mobile health application/platform connecting patients with Ayurveda, homeopathic and Unani physicians, and nutrition therapists, among others, from the comfort of their home — and, Editor-in-Chief, ThinkWellness360.

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